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GM ponders big step here


General Motors Corp. revealed yesterday that it is considering an expansion of its Allison Transmission operation, perhaps in White Marsh.

Word of the possible Allison expansion came during a meeting of top GM and state officials held in Annapolis to discuss the world's largest automaker's future in Maryland.

While hinting of an Allison expansion, the GM executives declined to commit to either retooling or replacing the company's 65-year-old van assembly plant in Baltimore.

The two sides agreed to additional meetings.

After the 90 minute, closed-door session in Government House, Gov. Parris N. Glendening disclosed that the state is in competition for an expansion of the transmission operations, which could bring more than 300 jobs to Maryland.

Last year, GM broke ground on the construction of a $216 million Allison Transmission plant in White Marsh that is scheduled to open next year. It will employ nearly 400 workers. Those do not represent new jobs; they are being transferred from the van plant.

The White Marsh site has sufficient land to allow for the plant and its work force to double in size.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski cautioned that Maryland is competing with other states for the Allison expansion, but she said that if it is successful, employment at White Marsh could rise to 750 workers.

Mikulski said GM is expected to make a decision on the expansion within the next 12 weeks.

It was not immediately clear yesterday if the positions would represent new jobs for the area or transfers from the assembly plant.

Glendening said the state delegation put its emphasis on three things at the meeting: an expansion of the Allison plant; continuation of the second shift at the van plant; and, "the most important by far, our goal of getting a full production facility and a new product in Baltimore."

The GM group was headed by Thomas J. Davis, head of its Truck Group, which has jurisdiction over the Baltimore plant. He was accompanied by Guy D. Briggs, general manager of the Truck Group, and David C. Prange, manager of the Baltimore plant.

The automotive executives left in a made-in-Baltimore GMC Safari van without speaking with reporters.

In a prepared statement released later in the day, GM said it would provide the Maryland delegation "with the general factors it considers when looking at facilities for potential future investments."

The GM group made no promise to reconsider the decision last month to eliminate the second shift at the Baltimore plant.

The plant's last two-shift operation is scheduled for June 30. At that time, the plant will close for model changeover. When production resumes July 17, there will be one shift.

Ending the second shift could eliminate 1,200 jobs, cutting the plant's total employment in half.

Glendening said GM is not ready to make a decision on a new plant in Baltimore until it comes up with a new product, or vehicle, that might be produced here.

The governor said the state did not present GM with a financial package of incentives to help pay for a new plant, but noted that the auto executives "were very pleased with the financial package" offered Allison.

The state and Baltimore County offered more than $10 million in loans, tax breaks and grants to lure the transmission plant to White Marsh.

It even built an electric power plant to lower the plant's utility costs.

Glendening said the two groups are scheduled to meet again in late July. The exact date and site have yet to be determined.

A second meeting is tentatively scheduled for early December. Richard C. Mike Lewin, secretary of the state Department of Business and Economic Development, said the governor and he will meet with GM's president, G. Richard Wagoner.

The GM plant is Baltimore's largest manufacturing employer. Economists estimate that it pumps $1 billion a year into the regional economy and creates another 3,500 related jobs.

General Motors has said it is committed to the continued production of vans at the Broening Highway plant or the construction of a new factory until the third quarter of 2003.

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